(1) Chicago Blackhawks vs (8) Minnesota Wild
The Chicago Blackhawks have been simply dominant this season. The Wild have given them fits during the regular season, but the way Minnesota stumbled into the playoffs coupled with Pominville’s injury can really make it tough for the Wild to keep up. Chicago is too deep and skilled to fall to the Wild. That being said, I don’t think there is a sweep in this series. Minnesota can stave off a blowout, and maybe hang in to win a one-goal game, maybe in overtime. This series is a best test for Crawford. Many, including myself, have doubts that the amazing net-minding of the regular season will carry over. A stumble out of the gates would be disastrous, so Crawford needs to show up early and often for the Blackhawks to have a chance to win this series and the Cup.
Prediction: Chicago in 5.
(2) Anaheim Ducks vs (7) Detroit Red Wings
A team built for the playoffs that surprised everyone this season versus a team led by veterans stepping up at the right time. This is going to be tough. Ultimately, if the Ducks’ goaltending stays strong and they continue to get contributions from their depth players (Bonino, Beleskey, Cogliano, Winnik, etc) they have the upper hand in this series. The Ducks defense doesn’t have that superstar quality or attractiveness, but they work as a unit and are very effective led by early-season Norris candidate Beauchemin. We all know how great Datsyuk and Zetterberg are, but they cannot win this series on their own. Franzen has to step up and produce like we know he can, and role players must chip in. Brunner and Filpulla need to find the net more often, and the defense has to make up in effort and strong play what they lack in experience.
Prediction: Anaheim in 6
(3) Vancouver Canucks vs (6) San Jose Sharks
Vancouver is the more highly-touted team in this series, but the Sharks have the upper-hand in matchups, in my opinion. The physicality of the Sharks will be tough for the Canucks to overcome. All eyes will be on Schneider as he duels Niemi. Vancouver has the upper hand in scoring depth, but the Sharks have solid role players to counter. The Sharks have choked year after year and a look at this roster doesn’t seem that far off from that of old, but I believe they at least make it out of this round.
Prediction: San Jose in 7
(4) St. Louis Blues vs (5) Los Angeles Kings
Is this the year the Blues have been waiting for? When their leaders couple with developed and experienced youngsters to take them deep in the playoffs? I think it all comes down to their goaltending. Will they get last year’s Elliott or the Elliott that was sent down earlier this season? Can their goaltending hold off the deep Kings? This is Kopitar’s time to wake up. He has quietly put together a decent season, but he needs to step up to lead the Kings past the Blues. Richards and Carter will chip in, and we know Brown will do his thing (hitting, diving, scuffling). Stoll, Williams, Penner and Richardson need to chip in. The Kings defense is superb, veteran stay-at-home defensemen coupled with offensive-minded youngsters, but can they handle the huge, strong, powerful Blues forwards and their attacks in waves? Quick has to be stellar again because the Kings should be able to score on the Blues, but can they hold the Blues off the score sheet? I love Hitchcock and we know what he is capable of in terms of shutting down the opposition and picking the right times to send out the bottom 6. Oshie should be back and he’ll provide a huge lift to the offense and hitting of the Blues, who have a lot of two-way players throughout their lineup. And what I think is not talked about enough is the Blues defense. The additions of Bouwmeester and Leopold stabilize the defense and help Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk along. And who wants to face a third pairing of Polak and Jackman?
Prediction: St. Louis in 7
(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs (8) New York Islanders
On paper, this shouldn’t even be close, but I contend it at least won’t be a sweep. Don’t underestimate the Isles. My biggest worry about the Islanders is whether or not Nabokov can hold his regular-season form. Once Crosby comes back, the Penguins will have their full arsenal to throw at the Islanders and it will simply be too much for the Isles to handle. One thing that bodes well for New York is how loose they can play in comparison to the Penguins. Pittsburgh has a “Stanley Cup or bust” roster and all the pressure will be on them to advance, with or without Crosby. The Penguins have better depth and a stronger defensive unit than the Islanders, and obviously a much stronger top 6. Fleury has to be better than his performance in last year’s playoffs, though. Offense can carry the Penguins far, and the defense is good 9especially now that they are focused on team defense), but Fleury will be the key to winning the Cup. I believe Tavares will have a good series, but unfortunately I think their great story ends in this round.
Prediction: Pittsburgh in 5
(2) Montreal Canadiens vs (7) Ottawa Senators
Montreal’s influx of youth and energy coupled with strong defensive play and a stellar Price in net makes Montreal scary. What make Ottawa scary is their story of the season. They started out looking strong and then were hit, and hit hard, by the injury bug. Despite losing two of their best forwards (Spezza and Michalek), their best defenseman (Karlsson) and their top goalie (Anderson) were periods of time, they managed to not only stay afloat, but stay strong and push into the playoffs. The returns of Karlsson and Anderson boosted them into the playoffs and will be tremendously helpful against Montreal. But I don’t think it will be enough. Markov is healthy and energetic this season, Subban is a Norris candidate and their youth continue to blossom alongside proven veterans. I’ve seen a number of people pick the Canadiens as their dark horse for the Cup. I don’t believe they will the cup, but I think they will make it out of the first round, at least.
Prediction: Montreal in 6
(3) Washington Capitals vs (6) New York Rangers
Could this finally be the year the Capitals make it to the finals? Or is this the year the paper All-Star Rangers live up to their potential to win the Cup? The Capitals are one of the hottest teams in the league and Ovechkin was absolutely on fire heading into the playoffs after an unbelievable April. The Capitals have woken up and look to make a serious playoff push, but they will have to face one of the toughest matchups in the East. Whether they were going to enter the playoffs as a top seed or an 8 seed, the Rangers are a very scary team to face in the playoffs. their goalie is one of the best in the world, their defense is solid all around (and that’s without Marc Staal), and their offense consists of All-Stars and budding youngsters. They’ve have trouble putting it all together and getting a cohesive team on the ice this season, but they got it to work near the end of the season, the right time. The Capitals need to have a big series from their goaltending and they will rely on Ovechkin contuing his MVP-worthy play as well as Green’s resurgence on the blue line. One thing is almost guaranteed: whoever emerges the victor will be hobbled and bruised after this grueling series. The Rangers have a better chance of limping out of the series and still have enough left in the tank to make a deep run.
Prediction: New York Rangers in 7
(4) Boston Bruins vs (5) Toronto Maple Leafs
Boston has owned the Maple Leafs of late, but the playoffs are a whole new beast. Take into account how badly the Bruins stumbled into the playoffs and all the little stories and rivalries between the two and we got an interesting series on our hands. Boston has the clear advantage in terms of playoff experience, being built for the playoffs and overall depth. The Leafs have a lot more question marks than exclamation points on their roster. Can Optimus Reim carry the Leafs to victory? Can Kessel finally wake up and produce against his former team? Can Kadri remain one of the better players for Toronto in his first playoff appearance? How will the Leafs handle the big, bruising Bruins forwards who know what it takes to win in the playoffs? The biggest questions for Boston are can their offense wake up now that it’s do or die? And can Rask maintain his Vezina-nominee goaltending standards? The Bruins will look to Jagr to step up and help ignite the dormant offense. And Lucic has to be a factor for Boston to win. The Leafs have been playing as a team and winning as a team this season. When one slumps, another steps up. They need continue to rally together and play as a cohesive unit to have any chance against the Bruins.
Prediction: Boston in 5